ROME – Earlier this week the Australian government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, declared that the country will partake in an optional postal plebiscite on same-sex marriage.
Australians will be called to express their opinion by November 2017 on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized in the country. Unlike a referendum, where the citizens’ vote often changes the law or at least cannot be easily dismissed, the plebiscite is only a sampling of public opinion and is not legally binding.
“Vote No, to keep marriage as a unique relationship between a woman and a man,” reads a plebiscite information pamphlet issued by the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference.
The current Marriage Act 196 in Australia states that marriage is “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others.” Recently, liberal members of parliament in the country have tried to propose an amendment to the law in order to include same-sex marriage. Turnbull decided to sample the country’s beliefs with a plebiscite before allowing any such discussion in Parliament.
In the pamphlet, Australian bishops said that insisting that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman is “not a criticism of other kinds of relationships” and does not preclude same-sex couples from entering into other legal relationships.
“The recognition that marriage is between a man and a woman is not the assertion of bigotry, religious dogma or irrational tradition, but a recognition of human ecology,” they said in the pamphlet dated August 15.
The bishops continued by stating that “the consequences of changing marriage are very real,” and asked whether faithful will be forced to be involved in ceremonies contrary to their beliefs, if organizations will be free to employ staff that is in line with their principles or if agencies will be excluded from bids for government contracts or other funding unless they endorse same-sex marriage.
“We have seen each of these freedoms challenged overseas where the definition of marriage has changed,” the bishops said.
In what has become a controversial government decision, the plebiscite will be conducted through the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which means that the usual legal protections against the distribution of hateful or deceptive material will not apply.
“We conduct this dialogue with a deep sense of reverence and respect for every person in the nation, and for the choices that they are free to make,” Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, Australia said in a statement dated August 16.
The archbishop called all Catholics in the country to “engage in this community discernment” and to do so “so in the spirit of grace, calm reverence and respect.
“There will be no place in this dialogue for criticism, abuse or denigration of other people or their individual choices,” he added. “This is an opportunity for us to witness to our deep commitment to marriage in a way that might convince others by the depth of our faith and our respect for all.”
The statement concluded by recognizing the holiness of marriage between a man and a woman and its fundamental role in raising children as part of God’s divine plan for the human family.
Polls show that attitudes toward marriage among Australians are gradually shifting toward a larger acceptance of same-sex marriage, especially among women. The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia annual survey found that 67 percent of women and 59 percent of men are favorable to legalizing same-sex marriage.
A recent poll by Galaxy Research and commissioned by Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays found that out of 1,000 Australian Christians, 54 percent were favorable to same-sex marriage and 49 percent opposed conscientious objection protections to offering services for same-sex couples.